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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Thor

Kenneth Branagh's effects-laden family drama

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Kenneth Branagh isn't immune to the thrill of a technical challenge. After all, the esteemed British actor-director, usually paired with Shakespeare in word-association tests, once directed a four-hour Hamlet in 70 mm film. And let's not forget his rendition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Branagh has the good taste to be occasionally extravagant.

With that in mind, Branagh's eagerness to shoot Thor in 3-D should be a little less surprising, especially since—with the obvious exception of Avatar—most 3-D movies stink. And while the Thor of Branagh's film may be a creature of Marvel Comics, in origin Thor and the other Nordic deities are archetypes with enough family drama to satisfy Shakespeare. The mythic framework is sound enough and the opportunity to invade the Marvel universe might have been a gauntlet tossed at Branagh, aesthetically as well as technically.

But Branagh buffs, if not comic book fans, could have wished for something more than the resulting film. To call the plot turns of Thor silly is to beg being called silly—"What do you expect, Shakespeare?"—but Branagh at least had the good sense to highlight the screenplay's humor. However, under the gags and often less-than-awesome computer animation beats an eternal story of two rival brothers, a disappointed father and the struggle for a vast patrimony. It could have been a circa 1955 Hollywood drama starring Burl Ives, James Dean and Paul Newman. It could have been one of the Bard's titanic contests for the throne. And it could have been better.

The star of Thor is an Australian of no great distinction, the suitably Aryan-looking Chris Hemsworth. Resembling, in the early scenes, an NFL quarterback in a touchdown victory dance, Thor gets a bit too big for his bulging breastplates when he attacks the realm of the Frost Giants against the will of his father, Odin (endowed with a measure of gravitas by Anthony Hopkins). Is the whole thing a setup by Thor's shifty-eyed, plummy-voiced brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the Eddie Haskell of the pantheon? It's good to remember, as did Branagh and his writers, that Loki is a trickster and not wholly evil. With Loki, you just never know.

Thor becomes the demigod who fell to Earth as his father's punishment for disobedience; apparently, exposure to the gridlock of American society is meant to build the young man's character. Of course, he meets a comely astrophysicist (Natalie Portman) who is drawn to him like a kitten to a saucer of warm milk. But the love story is tacked on to a movie that in the end is as much about special effects as anything else. In a nod to 20th-century American folklore, the Men in Black arrive on the scene to seize Thor's hammer, which Odin flung angrily to Earth like a dad hurling a smartphone after kicking his son out of the house. The hammer is stuck in the desert rock of New Mexico and can only be dislodged, in an Arthurian touch, by the one who will be worthy to rule. Guess who that will be and you might win a Thor-size happy meal at a participating franchise.